Bureau of Meteorology staff have been hospitalised because of work conditions, as a loss of senior meteorologists means junior forecasters are trying to deal with natural disasters beyond their expertise. By Rick Morton.
Exclusive: Toxic culture has plunged the Bureau of Meteorology into chaos
The workplace culture at the Bureau of Meteorology is so toxic that a man was hospitalised twice for psychiatric care, another had a heart attack while working extreme overtime, and was asked to come back earlier than a doctor advised, and at least five more staff took stress leave because of panic attacks and anxiety regarding management oversight.
More than 20 staff have left the media and communications division at the BoM in the past 18 months. The entire marketing team at the agency was “bloodlet” and removed during a restructure and rebranding effort that consumed the time and resources of the weather office during a period of intensifying calamity relating to climate change and natural disasters. Senior meteorologists have also left.
Since June last year, the bureau has spent more than $260,000 with Elm Communications Canberra Pty Ltd, just trying to plug gaps in its public affairs workforce.
Although many of the concerns relate to the media division, meteorologists and other staff have complained of “the severe dysfunction” in this area infecting other parts of the service. Gag orders have been issued to prevent forecasters from speaking to journalists unless their comments are pre-approved. Media managers have explicitly banned the mention of climate change in connection with severe weather events.
In one case during major New South Wales flooding in March last year, an edict was issued that BoM forecasters and other specialists were not to speak to any media after a meteorologist was accused of “fluffing” his lines on climate change.
A spokesperson for the BoM denies this.
In addition to the above concerns, The Saturday Paper can reveal the Commonwealth agency admitted some months ago to staff that it has not been paying overtime correctly and has so far failed to reimburse employees. Indeed, it stopped communicating with them in August about the issue.
The bureau says, in a response to The Saturday Paper, that a “discrepancy” was identified and “an audit of overtime payments is currently under way and all payments made dating from 1 June 2021 are being reviewed”.
The Saturday Paper has spoken with 20 current and former staff members at the bureau to establish a distressing and farcial account of a government agency’s response to a changing climate.
Details in this account that do not appear within quotation marks have nevertheless been provided by individuals who spoke on the condition of anonymity, fearing reprisals.
On October 6, a delegate from the federal government insurance company, Comcare, wrote to a former employee of the BoM advising that the agency was “liable to pay compensation” for aggravating a major depressive disorder and contributing to a panic disorder. The order included compensation for time off work between December last year and August this year, and all medical expenses for a period of nine months. Their position was backfilled while he was still in hospital and advertised without his knowledge.
The Comcare report noted that the person’s “employment significantly contributed to their ‘Aggravation of Major Depressive Disorder’ and ‘Panic Disorder’ ”. It acknowledged that increased workload and changes in “management structure” contributed to this.
The Comcare report accepted the assessment of a psychiatrist, who noted that “work-related stressors” were “the precipitating factor in this deterioration”. The report continued: “These included problems in the workplace culture, high work pressure and excessive hours, despite my medical certification in December 2021 urging moderation.”
The Saturday Paper is aware of multiple other HR complaints, known internally as “Protecht incident reports”. These reports were so voluminous that they were collated by concerned employees and sent as a bundle. It is not clear whether the concerns received any response.
The BoM confirmed to The Saturday Paper that there had been “5 Protecht reports made by staff within the Communications Program in the period since 1 Jan 2021” but was unable to discuss details. The organisation said the “Group Executive is made aware of actions taken to support staff involved in response in those matters”.
In the context of a heavily criticised launch of a new brand for the BoM – in conception and especially in execution – multiple staff from different corners of the agency told The Saturday Paper that the disastrous public relations strategy is symptomatic of a bigger, more serious problem.
“This branding thing is a stupid little symptom which reveals more about what is actually going on at the bureau than most people would expect,” one employee says.
“There is so much focus on rebranding efforts like this and all of this window dressing and, in the meantime, the staff are really struggling to get the work done. We have lost so many people due to the [public service] transition to national production.”
Under these reforms, which began after the appointment of Andrew Johnson as director of the BoM, regional forecasting centres in every state and territory have been shuttered. State managers have been sacked and a national desk has been created instead. Johnson has pushed the project with fervour. The new branding, complete with public insistence that the Bureau of Meteorology be referred to respectfully as the Bureau, was, according to sources at the BoM, “completely driven by him”.
Although the organisation denied there had been any rebrand – it said it had instead “refreshed its brand and updated its visual identity” – it confirmed these changes were made by the BoM’s executive team.
The Saturday Paper can reveal that the planned name change and new “corporate presence” began more than three years ago and cost far more than has been reported. In December 2018, the BoM paid almost $90,000 to brand specialists The Contenders for work on the new “positioning project” between then and April 2019. When a new general manager of communications – Emma Liepa – took over in April 2020, she “canned the project” and restarted it using her preferred contractor, The C Word Communications Agency Pty Ltd, owned and operated by Jack Walden. The BoM has characterised this contract as a “preliminary analysis” of perceptions about the agency and its “position in the marketplace” and not part of the “Brand project”.
Walden’s The C Word agency won a $70,000 contract in September last year in a “limited tender” to progress this project. Walden is now a senior manager of communications delivery at the BoM, having started in late November last year.
The Saturday Paper understands that Walden was hired as an EL2 “upper”, the same pay band as his boss Liepa, and is an ongoing public service employee. Walden also worked with Liepa in her previous role at the Victorian Healthcare Association. The Saturday Paper is not suggesting there is anything inappropriate in his employment.
“In this case, a conflict of interest was advised,” a BoM spokesperson said.
“There was no overlap between the work as a consultant and work when he [Walden] commenced as an employee with the Bureau.”
Internally, the rebranding has been prosecuted with fervour by Liepa and her colleagues but resisted and mocked by more junior staff. This is at odds with a BoM statement that says the sentiment, and feedback, from employees has been “overwhelmingly positive”.
“Recently Andrew Johnson launched the new 2022-2027 strategy and rounded off the presentation by telling us all that we had to print off the strategy, read it and he would be testing us if he bumped into us in the office,” a staff member says. “He was dead serious.”
A forecaster who cannot be identified because they still work with the BoM said the “reaction around me on shift over the last few weeks to the new branding announcements has been somewhere between exasperated laughter and anger”.
They continue, “That this is prioritised by management, over severe long-term understaffing of mets [meteorologists] – seemingly not of management and consultants – combined with a huge top-to-bottom restructure of the public service hitting the really hairy stages.
“All of this at the tail end of three La Niñas in a row with the potential for most of the east coast to flood so easily. Meteorologists are tired and overworked. The public reaction today was honestly wonderful and heartwarming. I’m so happy the public saw the bullshit instantly.”
Neither Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek, whose portfolio includes the BoM, nor her office, was aware the agency was about to launch its controversial edict and new look publicly in the middle of a flooding crisis across Victoria. When she demanded an urgent briefing, the response from senior bureau managers was “cagey” and “unsatisfactory”, according to people familiar with the exchange. Internally, BoM staff were told that they were to move full steam ahead and that the minister’s office was happy.
But what the minister’s office did not know, because the BoM did not tell them, was that the full cost of this rebranding was closer to $750,000, with some of that cost completely unnecessary after the banishing of The Contenders and early work done by that firm.
When Plibersek’s people demanded a full list of contracts, this was not mentioned. The Saturday Paper has confirmed this separately using information provided by concerned employees. Bizarrely, the BoM hired EY Sweeney on a $93,000 contract in March to conduct market research regarding the rebrand. What the consultants found was that just 15 per cent of people recognised the Bureau of Meteorology as “the Bureau” – the preferred name for brand recognition in the now-failed repositioning. More than 60 per cent, however, associated “BoM” with the agency.
What matters, according to every staff member who spoke for this piece, is that this side quest isn’t just a bad look. While these dramatic restructures and fiddly public relations exercises unfolded, some of the worst flooding in Australian history happened in northern NSW.
Residents in Lismore in particular were trapped after catastrophic flooding appeared to catch officials off guard. While the SES, itself struggling with a new centralisation plan, is responsible for issuing evacuation orders, they rely on information from the national meteorologists and hydrologists at the bureau.
“The BoM went into this PST [Public Sector Transformation] understaffed, and only lost countless more staff during PST, not realising that not everyone wants to uproot their lives and move to Melbourne or Brisbane,” a meteorologist said.
“There absolutely needs to be a royal commission into what happened at Lismore. I saw grad mets barely off course in charge of things they would never have been in charge of up until that point. Lismore happened right in the short-staffing period. We go into that event, everyone is already fatigued and working long hours.”
At this time – when a meteorologist was due to speak at a press conference about the unfolding flooding emergency in NSW, next to Premier Dominic Perrottet – there was a particular sensitivity within the agency about the warnings provided to the public. This forecaster was told they could speak only from pre-approved lines.
A separate source, who is no longer with the BoM, told The Saturday Paper that the organisation was “down 24 or 25” meteorologists and there were “no meteorologists in management”. The source said good people were slowly forced out, especially meteorologists: “There is such a strangled culture there now.”
After being appointed by the former Coalition government to head the BoM, Johnson set about an aggressive reform program, parts of which former employees concede were much needed. But it happened so fast it caused serious issues across the business.
“The rate of change, ineffective change, that has happened has been a huge problem because there are so many conflicting priorities, that the bureau basically just ground to a halt,” a source says.
“All the money just got funnelled into [PST] and squandered through massive use of contractors and people who didn’t have core knowledge of the bureau, so it took lots of time to ramp up to speed and the like.
“Really important projects like ours just got buried and not funded because all the money just got funnelled off into these other areas.”
One of the projects that was delayed and underfunded was the upgrade of the bureau’s warning systems – a multi-part program with many moving parts – which was left in disarray.
As science was censored or relegated to the sideline and messages became more tightly controlled, the culture at the BoM deteriorated even further. In July and August this year, tens of thousands of dollars were paid to the conflict resolution firm Momentum, which promised to mediate workplace disputes and teach staff how to get along.
“From a place of deep presence, curiosity, openness, and no blame, we listen and look through multiple lenses, be it conflict, a change process, relationship opportunity, power or rank dynamic, conscious or unconscious systemic forces, or embedded narrative,” the company’s website says.
“Momentum’s services are sought when there are symptoms of a blame-ridden, judgemental, disengaged culture where low morale, negativity, gossip and finger-pointing may exist, with little or no understanding as to the underlying cause.”
Whatever services these consultants offered, they have not worked. The bureau remains utterly divided. This is about much more than a rebrand; it is about a dysfunctional culture at one of the country’s key science agencies, a place central to how we predict and respond to the natural disasters that will worsen as the climate heats.
“They have a duty of care to the Australian people,” a former employee says.
“I watched them put up meteorologists for live crosses pretending to be in another state so it didn’t look like we had no one on the ground. I watched colleagues have nervous breakdowns or just fall apart in front of my eyes. It was so distressing.”
A spokesperson for the bureau says although there has been “some staff turnover” at the BoM, public service survey results about employee engagement “do not reflect a toxic culture”. It rejects allegations that turmoil and staff restructures have compromised service delivery.
The rebrand itself is curious, though. So many resources went into the project, except when it came to graphic design. Several sources have told The Saturday Paper that near the end of the process, Andrew Johnson drew the new logo himself.
“He wanted something that wasn’t scientifically correct,” one staff member says, “so he drew that and that’s what we ended up with.”
Johnson denies drawing it himself, but says he did “provide feedback on it during its development”. The logo, a map of Australia with what look like isobars drawn over its surface, is scientific gobbledegook.
When asked about this, another staff member with knowledge of the design simply responded: “Next challenge – ask a meteorologist what it means.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 22, 2022 as "Exclusive: Toxic culture has plunged the Bureau of Meteorology into chaos".
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